Tracy Oppenheimer, Reason
In March 2013, Steve Oates’ home in Goodyear, Ariz. was stormed by police, SWAT, and DEA agents because of a marijuana grow room in the guest house.
“It was like something you see in the movies. It was 6:30 in the morning, and basically you hear ‘bang! bang! bang!’ on the door, and next thing you know you hear the crash of a battering ram,” says Oates.
Oates’ doctor had recommended medicinal marijuana for Oates’ chronic back pain, so he attained a medical marijuana card with cultivation rights. Dispensaries were still few and far between at the time, and Oates didn’t trust Craigslist for his medicine.
“I felt like the next alternative was to grow it ourselves,” says Oates. Oates met a few other patients who shared concerns about underground marijuana channels, and they decided to start growing together. Oates had their entire supply during the raid, which ended up being more than the permitted amount that he could grow with cultivation rights. He pled guilty to possessing under two pounds of marijuana.
But the conviction ended up being the smallest price that Oates had to pay. Goodyear Police Department brought Oates’ case to the Attorney General, who consequently slapped Oates with over $455,000 in civil asset forfeiture. Civil asset forfeiture is when the government can seize property and finances that they suspect have a connection to illicit activity. However, they sue the property instead of the person, so there doesn’t have to be a related conviction.
“That’s what they’re claiming, is that the market value of the sales that he allegedly made was $455,000,” says Oates’ attorney John Moore. “They don’t have any proof or any evidence that the property that they are trying to forfeit is related to the crime of his possession of marijuana for sale.”
Oates says that between property taken, bank accounts seized, and legal fees, he has actually lost over $600,000, but that he would “rather spend every dollar on an attorney than just let [law enforcement] have it.”
Moore is helping Oates fight to get his assets back, yet says it’s easier said than done.
“In a typical civil case, it’s the plaintiff that has the burden of proof. But in a civil forfeiture case, it turns out it’s actually the defendant that has to show where this money came from,” says Moore. “We have to show by preponderance of the evidence, that this money that they are trying to forfeit came from legal means.
Moore adds that Arizona has a direct incentive to utilize asset forfeiture because unlike other states, Arizona law enforcement gets to keep seized funds for their own departments.
“Their focus is on raising revenues instead of actual law enforcement itself,” says Moore. “Instead of going after real drug dealers who are transporting across state lines or criminal gangs that are creating great crime and personal injury to people, they’re going after an individual because they know he had funds in his bank account.”